Has the post-season in baseball become as irrelevant as the All-Star Game to most fans?
Booming regular season attendance, obscene television revenues and the advent of the World Baseball Classic notwithstanding, fewer people than ever are watching the baseball playoffs. There is little reason to believe those same people will suddenly find religion when the World Series gets underway.
Numerous factors have contributed to this collective big yawn. A longer regular season started the trend as baseball encroached further on territory usually reserved for Fall and Winter sports. For the history buffs out there, the key dates in this discussion are 1958 and 1961. In the former, the Baltimore Colts met the New York Giants in the dramatic sudden-death NFL title game credited with establishing football as the predominant game on the American sporting landscape. Three years later, baseball expanded its regular season from 154 to 162 games and introduced the asterisk as the single most important punctuation mark in its history.
The subsequent advent of the Wild Card and longer playoff series further contributed to the erosion of late-season baseball tolerance. Expansion of the football season to 16 games and the concomitant earlier start to its season and pre-season and the expansion of professional basketball and hockey also cut into baseball’s hegemony. Add in the earlier start to and expansion of the college football season and you have a lot of competition for the average sports fan’s attention at the juncture when baseball is just gearing up for its showcases: the playoffs and post-season.
Few if any other moves have eroded interest in October baseball more than the introduction of interleague play. If nothing else, the curiosity factor about the “other” league was erased when teams from the NL and AL routinely met during the regular season. Few interleague rivalries generate considerable fan interest and local bragging rights (Yankees vs. Mets, Cubs vs. White Sox are exceptions) and most are no more interesting than your regularly scheduled programming. Saturday afternoon, Monday and Thursday night national broadcasts combined with the availability of all games on mlb.com and satellite and the full 162 game presentation by most local stations also means over-exposure. All baseball all the time is, frankly, a whole lot more than all football all the time when you have 30 teams playing 162 games each as opposed to 30 teams playing 16 games each.
The All-Star game used to be the one moment in the middle of the summer when fans could watch the great players from the “other” league go head-to-head. The actual game has been watered down by the pre-game festivities including the home run contest, broadcast in prime time the night before, which probably draws more viewers than the game itself. The All-Star break used to be a three-day interlude, two for travel and one for the contest. Now, it is crammed with pre-game hype and hoopla and doesn’t feel like a break at all. Free agency has also contributed to the watering down of the product considering how many stars change leagues as well as teams multiple times throughout their careers. For better or worse, in the old days Ted Williams and Willie Mays were always going to represent the American and National Leagues respectively and the All-Star game was going to be a real dogfight for bragging rights. Bud Selig has tried to rejuvenate the contest by awarding home field advantage for the World Series to the winning league, a terrible idea that penalizes the visiting team in the Series for the sins of their league.
Baseball executives would be loath to admit it except in private, but most of them would prefer to see teams from the big television markets meeting in the playoffs. Their worst nightmare would be to have teams from the smaller markets meeting throughout the month of October. An early exit by either New York team is considered a disaster; a World Series between, say, the Florida Marlins and Cleveland Indians would be an even bigger one.
The rejuvenation of a Kenny Rogers, emergence of Jose Reyes, and continued brilliance of Albert Pujols is not enough to draw fans back to their television sets for any protracted length of time. And as noted in an earlier post, neither are the exhortations of Tommy LaSorda in some pretty clever ads aimed directly at those deserters. A lot of true fans of the game are staying away in droves and baseball’s alleged brain trust seems clueless how to bring them back. It could get a lot worse before it gets better. Conceivably, it might never get better.